In the past year, it has been well-documented that Indians’ utility man Michael Martinez is one of the worst hitters in baseball history. As a quick recap, out of 4182 non-pitchers since 1900 to record at least 550 plate appearances, Martinez’s 35 wRC+ (100 is league-average) is the sixth-worst. And yet, in 2016 the Cleveland Indians decided that they wanted him on their team for the majority of the season. It was something of a joke for Cleveland fans, making snarky comments whenever Martinez would play. But, as long as the team kept winning, it was relatively easy to forget about.
That is, until Martinez stepped in the batter’s box for arguably the most important at bat in Indians’ history.
In the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series, with the Cubs leading 8-7, Martinez came to the plate with two outs, and the tying run on first base. Martinez’s at bat was the highest leverage moment of the game for an Indians hitter, by leverage index. It carried a mark of 3.41 – over three times the average leverage index of a play, which is 1.0.
In the most important at bat of arguably the most important game in franchise history, Cleveland had one of the worst hitters of all time batting for them.
Using Fangraphs’ Batter-Specific Run Expectancy Tool, we can actually calculate how many runs Cleveland was expected to score for the rest of the inning, in their given situation, with Martinez hitting. All we need is Martinez’s weighted on-base percentage (career .226) and the run environment (teams averaged 3.63 runs at Progressive Field in the 2016 postseason). In that context, the Indians tying the game would have been nothing short of a miracle, with the tool stating Cleveland was only expected to score .003 runs for the rest of the inning.
Now, if the Indians’ found themselves in that exact same situation, but had rostered someone like Yandy Diaz (projected .315 wOBA by Steamer) in the playoffs instead (like I suggested here), the team’s Run Expectancy makes a massive jump to .163. While this is still a far-cry from a guaranteed run, it would have given Cleveland a much better opportunity to tie the game.
But, it was Martinez who was hitting, and he hit a weak ground ball to Kris Bryant to clinch the World Series for Chicago. In a crazy World Series, the last play unfolded exactly how it was supposed to – a horrible offensive player failed to reach base safely and extend the game.
That said, the blame shouldn’t go to Martinez. However, it should go to the Indians, for rostering a player of Martinez’s caliber when the team’s goal is a championship. Unfortunately, Cleveland hasn’t appeared to learn from their 2016 mistake, as Martinez is currently on the Indians 25-man roster.
The Indians aren’t claiming Martinez is a good hitter. In fact, Indians’ manager Terry Francona acknowledges this, saying, “his bat has never been his ticket…we probably wouldn’t want him playing everyday.” Francona clearly wants to use the 34-year-old Martinez as a late game defensive substitute or pinch runner. But, any time you make that kind of substitution, there is always the possibility that Martinez could end up hitting at a crucial stage in the game, like in Game 7 of the World Series, where Francona admitted, “I wasn’t thrilled he was hitting.”
Even if you take away hitting, it isn’t as if Martinez is a defensive phenom or burner on the bases. His sample sizes by Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved are small, so it is tough to make any clear judgements. But, by the looks of it, for his MLB career, Martinez rates as above-average in the infield, and below-average in the outfield.
Unfortunately for Martinez, much of his defensive sample comes from his time with the Phillies between 2011 and 2013, when he was a younger man. Even if Martinez was an above-average infielder in his prime, now 34, Martinez is not going to be as strong defensively as he once was. Defense is largely based in athleticism, so it isn’t exactly groundbreaking to claim it doesn’t age well. However, these examples help emphasize the point:
Sure enough, by the time players are 34, they usually have significantly regressed on defense, and there is no reason Michael Martinez would be any different. Based off this information, it would be safe to say that Martinez isn’t anything better than average defensively, and there is a good chance he is sub-par at some positions, especially in the outfield.
Meanwhile, Martinez is an upgrade over some of the slower Cleveland players on the bases, but he isn’t a stolen base artist in the vein of a Terrence Gore – he’s only stolen 4 career bases on 7 attempts. In fact, FanGraphs’ BsR, a metric that measures all aspects of baserunning, has given Martinez a negative value in 3 of the last 4 years.
So what have we seen? Michael Martinez, the historically bad hitter, at age 34, is at the very best, an average defender, and an average baserunner. And to make matters even worse, based off what we have seen, Martinez isn’t even capable of successful laying down a bunt in a crucial situation. He failed to get a sac bunt down twice in Cleveland’s 19 inning game with Toronto on July 1 last year:
Then, later in the year, this happened:
Theoretically, the Indians could do worse – maybe Martinez can’t hit or bunt, but he probably isn’t going to be flat-out embarrassed in the infield on defense, or while running the bases. And that might be acceptable, if the team didn’t have any other options for a utility player. But, in this case, the Indians do, in the form of 25-year-old prospect Erik Gonzalez, who the Tribe sent to AAA while rostering Martinez.
According to Fangraphs’ head scout, Eric Longenhagen, Gonzalez is the Indians #8 prospect, possessing above-average speed and defense, along with a plus arm, which results in a “high-end, high-probability” grade as a utility player. Gonzalez was brought through the Indians’ system as a shortstop, but with Francisco Lindor locked in at short for the foreseeable future, Cleveland has began prepping him for a utility role. Last season, Gonzalez saw time at 2B, SS, 3B, CF, and RF. Based off his minor league numbers and brief MLB experience, Steamer projects Gonzalez to carry a 71 wRC+, seven percent better than Martinez’s 64 wRC+ projection.
Publicly, the Indians made the claim that Gonzalez wasn’t ready, and they didn’t want him to be on the 25-man roster before he could receive regular at bats. There are several holes in that logic, the first being the idea that Gonzalez needs more experience before he is MLB-ready. Gonzalez will turn 26 in August, and has played in 293 games between AA, AAA, and the MLB. Most of the players who have recently made their debut on Cleveland’s 25-man roster were younger, and had played in fewer games at AA or above with similar production:
So, we know Gonzalez’s game experience, age, and production are all in line with what the Indians generally define as “ready” to join the 25-man roster. However, factually, there is no disputing their second point: they want Gonzalez to receive regular at bats when he is called up, and regular at bats aren’t available.
If the Indians feel that way, no one can tell them they are wrong. At the moment, Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis, and Yandy Diaz are clearly ahead of Gonzalez in the pecking order for at bats at 2B, SS, or 3B. The trouble is, none of those players are going anywhere anytime soon. All are controlled through at least 2020. So, unless two of those players suffer serious injuries at once, the only role available to Gonzalez is the role Martinez currently owns: utility man/pinch runner. If the Indians are truly waiting for regular at bats for Gonzalez to become available, they might as well never call him up.
Giving a roster spot to Martinez and risking one of the worst hitters ever (and a poor sacrifice bunter) taking a meaningful at bat in exchange for mediocre defense and baserunning is a mistake the Indians have already made, and cannot afford to make again. By all measures, Erik Gonzalez is ready for MLB-play, and is a substantial upgrade over Martinez across the board.
If the Indians are serious about fielding the best team possible, Gonzalez should replace Martinez sooner rather than later.